ERECHTHEUM, a temple (commonly called after Erechtheus, to whom a portion of it was dedicated) on the acropolis at Athens, unique in plan, and in its execution the most refined example of the Ionic order. There is no clear evidence as to when the building was begun, some placing it among the temples projected by Pericles, others assigning it to the time after the peace of Nicias in 421 B.C. The work was interrupted by the stress of the Peloponnesian War, but in 409 B.C. a commission was appointed to make a report on the state of the building and to undertake its completion, which was carried out in the following year.
The peculiar plan of the Erechtheum has given rise to much speculation. It may be due partly to the natural conformation of the rock and the differences of level, partly to the necessity of enclosing within a single building several objects of ancient sanctity, such as the mark of Poseidon's trident and the spring that arose from it, the sacred olive tree of Athena, and the tomb of Cecrops. But there are some features which cannot be so explained, and which have led Professor W. Dörpfeld and others to believe that the plan, as we now have it, is a modification or abridgment of the original design, due to the same conservative influences as led to the curtailment of the plan of the Propylaea (q.v.).
The building as completed consisted of a temple of the ordinary type, opening by a door and two windows to the east front, before which stood a portico of six Ionic columns. This part was the temple of Athena Polias. Adjoining it on the west was the central chamber, on a lower level; this chamber was separated by a partition, originally of wood and later of marble, from the western compartment of the temple, which was of peculiar construction. The west end was formed by a wall, on which stood four columns between antae; but the main entrance to this western compartment was through a large and very ornate doorway on the north; and a large Ionic portico, consisting of four columns in the front, and one in the return on each side, was placed in front of this door. At the south end of the western compartment was a smaller door, with steps leading up to the higher level, within a projecting space enclosed by a low wall and covered with a projecting porch carried by six "maidens" or caryatides. The construction of the building at this south-western corner shows that there was some sacred object that had to be bridged over by a huge block of marble; this we know from inscriptions to have been the Cecropeum or tomb of Cecrops. In the north portico a square hole in the floor, with a corresponding hole in the roof above it, must have given access to another sacred object, the mark of Poseidon's trident in the rock. The sacred olive tree probably stood just outside the temple to the west in the Pandroseion. The Ionic order, as used in this temple, is of the most ornate Attic type. The bases of the columns are either reeded or decorated with a plait-pattern; the capital has the broad channel between the volutes subdivided by a carefully-profiled incision; and the top of the shafts is ornamented by a broad band of palmette or honeysuckle pattern. A similar band of ornament runs round the top of the walls outside, and at their base is a reeded torus. The frieze consisted of white marble figures in relief, affixed to a background of black Eleusinian stone.
The contents of the Erechtheum are described by Pausanias. It contained the ancient image of Athena Polias, and three altars, one to Poseidon and Erechtheus, one to Butes and one to Hephaestus; there were portraits of the family of the Butadae on the walls. Within it was also the gold lamp of Callimachus, which burnt for a year without refilling, and had a chimney in the form of a palm-tree.
The Erechtheum was damaged by a fire, soon after its completion, in 406 B.C., but was repaired early in the following century. The west end appears to have been damaged in Roman times and to have been replaced by the attached columns with windows between them which appear in old drawings and are still partially extant. It was used as a church in Christian times, and under Turkish rule as the harem of the governor of Athens. Lord Elgin carried off to London, about 1801-1803, one of the columns of the east portico and one of the caryatides; these were replaced later by terra-cotta casts. During the siege of the Acropolis in 1827, the roof of the north portico was thrown down and the building was otherwise much damaged. It was partially rebuilt between 1838 and 1846; the west front was blown down in a storm in 1852. Since 1900 the project of rebuilding the Erechtheum as far as possible with the original blocks has again been undertaken.
See Stuart, Antiquities of Athens; Inwood, The Erechtheum; H. Forster in Papers of American School at Athens, i. (1882-1883); J.H. Middleton, Plans and Drawings of Athenian Buildings (1900), pls. xiv.-xxii.; E.A. Gardner, Ancient Athens, chap. viii.; W. Dörpfeld, "Der ursprungliche Plan des Erechtheion" in Mitteil. Athen., 1904, p. 101, taf. 6; G.P. Stevens, "The East Wall of the Erechtheum," in American Journ. Arch., 1906, pls. vi.-ix.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)